I doubt that most people think of reviewing as a learning experience – after all, we’re supposed to know this stuff, right? Well, yes and no. Take music, for example: I’ve lived with music all my life, all kinds of music, and belong to the generation in which music became a context rather than an event. Think portable transistor radios, long before the days of the Walkman and the iPod. (My first encounter with “classical” music was the Brahms D-Minor Piano Concerto, on surplus 78s that my dad brought home — I think I might have been eight, and I was suddenly, irrevocably, in love.) So new composers, and a new repertoire, are an adventure.
Now, you can have a couple of approaches to activities such as listening to music: it can be a passive thing, just a way to fill time (or the empty spaces in your head when you’re not thinking of anything in particular), or it can be something else — intrigue, the pull of the new, a chance to learn something. (My parents were very big on learning.)
Which brings me, believe it or not, to a new album from the Danish String Quartet of music by Thomas Adès, Hans Abrahamsen, and Per Nørgård, three composers – two Danish, one British – with whom I was not familiar.
The disc presents the first foray by each composer into the realm of the string quartet, although none carries a title so mundane as “String Quartet No. 1.” All three were young when they composed these works, Nørgård and Abrahamsen both twenty, Adès twenty-three.
Thomas Adès was born in London in 1971, making him the youngest of the three. He notes that six of the seven Arcadias in his Arcadiana (1994) evoke vanished idylls, and the odd numbered are all aquatic – “Venezia notturno,” “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” “L’Embarquement,” and “Lethe” (“The River of Oblivion”). The even-numbered movements evoke pastorales, with the fourth, “Et . . . (tango mortale)” embodying a fairly mordant joke: the title is taken from a painting by Poussin showing a tomb with the inscription “Et in Arcadia ego.”
There’s an undercurrent of romanticism throughout Arcadiana, some very lyrical passages, that contrasts with the somewhat astringent style. Like the other works in this collection, there are swings in mood, from the melancholy of “Venezia notturno” to the pastorale of “O Albion.” Adès managed to combine tension with lyricism, sometimes breaking into a sort of sensuous romanticism. He makes telling use of contrast throughout the work.
Per Nørgård was born in Gentofte, Denmark, in 1932, making him the “Old Master” of this group. Early on, like every other musician in the Nordic world, he was influenced by the styles of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen; in the 1960s he became interested in the modernism of central Europe, particularly the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.
Quartetto Breve (1952) is indeed that: in two movements, it runs just over seven minutes. It’s perhaps more what we might expect of a composer influenced by the modernism of central Europe: not quite a severe as, say, Alban Berg, but packing an emotional punch. It is, to a large extent, a study in contrasts, juxtaposing quiet, serene passages with intense, driving sequences. It’s music that’s easy to get lost in.
Hans Abrahamsen was born in Copenhagen in 1952 and started his musical career early, playing French horn while still in school. It so happens that Per Nørgård was one of his mentors while at the Royal Danish Academy of Music; he later became close friends with György Ligeti, who also had an influence on his style. Later, he was part of the Danish reaction against the then-prevailing modernism’s complexity and perceived aridity.
Abrahamsen’s 10 Preludes (1973) are just that, ten brief movements, none as long as three minutes. After a somewhat startling beginning (who would have thought a string quartet could summon up that much volume?) — well, I can’t really say it levels off: like the other works on this disc, it’s a study in contrasts. The dynamic range is impressive, as is the magnitude of the result from what are, after all, limited resources. The first two movements seem almost urban, with that sense of directed hurry that’s endemic to city life. The tension does moderate as the work progresses, but the mood swings are enough to maintain interest. And somehow, the work takes on a much larger scale than one expects from four instruments.
The Danish String Quartet has a lock on this music. Even when you’re not familiar with the works, you can tell whether the performers are comfortable, and these four are on top of it, from the ethereal fade of Adès’ “Lethe” to the eighteenth-century spriteliness of Abrahamsen’s final “Prelude.” Although fairly young, they already have a history of collaboration, having been playing together since childhood and their early teens. It shows.
The essay that accompanies the disc, by Paul Griffiths, happily does not concentrate so much on the formal elements of the works (although they are addressed), but gives a good take on what the music is actually doing.
(ECM New Series, 2016)
The Danish String Quartet is Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violin; Frederik Øland, violin, Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, violoncello.